Story by Riichiro Inagaki
Art by Yusuke Murata
Translation by Allison Markin Powell
Lettering and retouch by James Gaubatz
Edited by Andy Nakatani
Hey, as tomorrow is apparently the day for a superlative game of some sort, maybe it's a good time to take a look at the #1 manga about American football — Eyeshield 21!. I picked up the first volume, god, is it three years ago now?, and it's the only long-running Shonen Jump series I'm still keeping up with.
Sena Kobayakawa's high school career isn't off to the greatest start — on his first day his biggest accomplishment is running away from three bullies at top speed. Unfortunately, his athletic display winds up attracting the attention of Yoichi Hiruma, quarterback of the football team! Hiruma needs some more team speed, and he presses Sena into as services as Eyeshield 211, the mysterious "light-speed running back." Will Sena's superior speed be enough to turn the football team's fortunes around?
Over the course of these six volumes the Devil Bats pick up new players and opponents with every step, each one stranger than the last. They add a cute manager (Sena's childhood friend Mamori), a running back so average he's invisible (Ishimaru), a monkey-like wide reciever (Monta), a balding brainiac (Yukimitsu), a pint-sized powerhouse (Komisubi), and three punks (Togano, Kuroki and Jumonji). They play (or watch) games against teams made up of gigolos (the Koigahama Cupids), Catholics (the Ojo White Knights), bikers (the Zokugaku Chameleons), cowboys (the Seibu Wild Guns), and ancient Egyptians (the Taiyo Sphinx). Along the way Sena and Monta learn to love football; Sena injures an opponent, and later visits him in the hospital to raise his fallen spirits; Hiruma holds the recruitment drive from Hell; and the team gets entered in a contest to play against a visiting American team.
Writer Riichiro Inagaki clearly knows his football.2 There was a bit in an early volume where Sena's depicted holding a football like an ice cream cone, and I was smirking about the creator's lack of football knowledge — only to be genuinely shocked when it turned out to be a plot point underscoring Sena's lack of football knowledge. A lot of Eyeshield 21 reads like a basic football primer for people totally unfamiliar with the game: Here's a quarterback and running back, this is what they do. Here's a wide reciever and some linemen, this is what they do. Here's some basic formations and plays. Here are the name of the basic passing routes and what they look like. It's actually a nice refresher for those of us who are just casual football fans.
Thematically, Eyeshield 21 plows a lot of familiar sports manga territory — rivals on the fields can be friends off it, it takes more than one person to play a team sport, bigger isn't always better, yadda yadda yadda. You won't find anything revolutionary in this department, but it's all solidly done. There are a few nice plot twists — it's nice to see a team actually lose a crucial game for once — and Inagaki keeps the story plowing along at good clip, always with an eye on the next player to recruit, the next game to play.
In these first view volumes the characters are pretty one-dimensional — Sena's cowardly off the field but exhilarated on it, Monta's an energetic idiot, Kurita's extreme in everything he does, Hiruma is sinister, Mamori is motherly, etc.. But this is a broad comedy — it plays off the interactions between extreme personalities and subtletly has no place here (for now). The characters all play well off of each other and the jokes aren't bust-out-loud funny but they're good enough and come at a steady clip.
Artist Yusuke Murata is a bit of an enigma. He's an average storyteller at best — the story doesn't flow from panel to panel, and the overall page design can be haphazard. He doesn't always spot blacks or detail well, and his drawing can be busy. His character designs can be stiff, inhuman, and mannered. But he also does a lot of neat things in all of these departments as well. Let's look at the figures on this title page...
Eyeshield 21 v2, p. 35
Mamori and Sena have both relatively normal builds, but there are still key differences between them — Mamori is inked with a thinner, more graceful line to emphasize her femininity, while Sena gets a thicker, chunkier line to emphasize his masculinity (such as it is). Hiruma gets the same chunky line as Sena, only with extra hatching defining exaggerated triangular muscles and bone shapes in order to emphasize his stronger build (note that the hatching goes in the direction of his arm, which makes him seem wiry rather than bulky and pumped-up). Kurita, on the other hand, is a creature of pure cartooning, his massive girth defined not by physical laws but design principles, and his head abstracted to the level of a child's drawing. It's a tribute to Murata's talent that these four characters, drawn in different styles, still look like they all come from the same world. Well, maybe not Kurita. But you get what I'm saying.
Murata also has a great talent for exaggeration and boisterous action that helps heighten the dramatic moments. Check this out this spread from volume 6...
Eyeshield 21 v6, p. 18-19
That perspective hasn't just been forced, it's been snapped in dozens of tiny pieces and glued back together. As a literal depiction of what's going on on the field, it's terrible. But it captures the emotional impact of that moment far better than a literal depiction ever could (compare to the relatively realistic depiction of the same scene on the left-hand page). The unstoppable Banba becomes a figurative giant, brushing linemen out of the way as if they were gnats, every muscle in his body twitching as he moves to crush Sena. It's a great way to bring the reader into the heart of the drama, in a way that it's very hard for other media to do.
He's also got a knack for diagramming football plays in a way that makes them comprehensible to laymen, and also providing them with a little graphic zing. Here's a sequence from volume 4 where Rui Habashira of the Zokugaku Chameleons tries to determine where Sena's cut will be...
Eyeshield 21 v4, p. 108-9
Murata may not be the artist I aspire to be, but he's certainly one worth studying for what he does right.
Overall, a surprisingly enjoyable series that really picks up steam after the first volume or two, and definitely worth a look for fans of comedy and football alike. Tomorrow: Volumes 7-12!